No more toll-free highways

David Menzies
National Post
June 9, 2000
The drive of the not-too-distant-future will involve pay-as-you-go fees. And, surprisingly, it is not a bad thing.

Ask not from whom the road tolls, it tolls for thee. New roads probably will be tolling for thee in the near future should any big new highway projects go ahead.

Granted, toll roads take a little getting used to — after all, motorists have long come to expect that using the highways and byways for free is a right. The fact is that governments are no longer flush with the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for new superhighways. At the same time, however, new roads are desperately needed to handle an ever-increasing volume of traffic.

Consider that in the greater Toronto area alone, traffic congestion is estimated to cost Ontario businesses up to $2-billion per year in lost income and productivity.

The most probable solution is an increase in pay-as-you-go toll highways, such as Toronto’s 69-kilometre-long Hwy. 407 electronic toll route (soon to be expanded to 108 kilometres.)

In the eyes of many observers, such a strategy is not necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, some people applaud the implementation of additional toll routes just on the principle of user-pay. Lawrence Solomon, executive director of the Urban Renaissance Institute (a Toronto-based think-tank) notes that, “it won’t be long before all major new roads are toll roads … there are proposals to toll (a rebuilt Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto) and the Ontario government has plans for several toll-roads from the U.S. border to relieve congestion on existing routes.”

Mr. Solomon notes that in addition to most toll roads being economically efficient, they are philosophically sound given that “the right people are paying for the use of the road. There really isn’t a good reason not to build toll roads if a road isn’t economic, then that’s a good reason not to build it in the first place.” He adds that whenever a toll road is abolished — as it was recently in New Brunswick — it’s typically due to an election promise of an opportunistic politician, not because it was the right thing to do.

Harry Gow of Transport 2000 (an Ottawa-based group that lobbies for improved transit conditions), still laments the removal of tolls on Quebec’s superhighway system 15 years ago.

“There’s not a toll road left in Quebec, which is a shame,” Mr. Gow says. “The province had successful and functioning tolled superhighways that covered costs and even returned a small profit. Now they’re gone and it’s going to be very hard to bring them back because people have come to expect that there is a free lunch when you drive your car — even though that doesn’t apply to the bus, the plane the ferry or anything else.”

Mr. Gow says he supports the construction of more toll roads in Canada because they are inherently fair given that they are user-pay. Also, tolling may encourage more people to use public transit.

As well, today’s new transponder technology facilitates seamless electronic tolling by removing one of the biggest complaints regarding toll roads the bottlenecking that occurs at toll plazas.

There’s another reason Mr. Solomon is so bullish on toll roads: safety. About 3,000 people die on Canada’s roads each year, with Ontario’s highways being among the most dangerous. Yet, consider the safety record of Hwy. 407.

Since opening in 1997, the 407’s collision rate is just 0.27 for every million kilometres of vehicular travel — about one-third the collision rate of Hwy. 401, which runs parallel to the 407. Mr. Solomon notes that the fatality rate on all North American toll roads is typically one-half to one-third that of non-toll roads.

A major reason why toll roads have such an enviable safety record is simply the bottom line: When traffic isn’t moving, a toll road can lose more than $30,000 an hour. “That (money loss) gives it (toll road) a powerful incentive to invest in safety and other equipment that lets (the toll road’s operators) pounce on small problems before they become big problems,” Mr. Solomon says.

He points to California’s Route 91 Express Lanes, a toll road built in the median of a freeway serving Los Angeles. The toll road is constantly monitored by video cameras. Also, a private fleet of tow trucks constantly trolls the highway, dealing immediately with any problems spotted.

“The (Route 91) tow-truck operator will change flat tires, boost batteries, provide a free gallon of gas to cars that have run out or tow them anything to get cars off the side of the road where they attract the attention of gawking passersby, slow traffic and create an accident risk,” he says.

In the end, it’s almost a given that new highways will be of the toll variety. But while you may gripe when it comes to shelling out more money when hitting the blacktop, there is some good news: At least traffic will move.

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